Die Hard with a Vengeance

FBI Questioned Screenwriter of ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ over Bank Heist Plot

Bruce Willis’ Die Hard series has been alive for over 25 years, and there are reports of a script for a sixth film in the works. When the original was released in 1988, it was so full of vitality that it arguably gave new life to the action genre as a whole, and it’s still one hell of a ride today. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) shifted the setting to an airport and soared fairly high itself. Some critics seem to dump on 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance (come on, RottenTomatoes critics, 51%?? Seriously?!), but I loved the pairing with Samuel L. Jackson, the clues around the city, the connection to the first film’s villain, and the presence of McLean’s wife, Holly, although she’s never seen. Live Free or Die Hard (2007) had its moments, but with the exception of Jeepers Creepers and Mac vs. PC commercials, I am not a fan of Justin Long, and the film lost me when McLean stands on the back of a flying fighter jet–I was waiting for him to fly over the Fonz as he jumps the shark, or squeeze into the fridge with Indy (come on, RottenTomatoes critics, 82%?? Seriously?!). A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) should have been titled I Simply Refuse to Die Hard, or Otherwise, although virtually all of its problems are due to the writers, directors, editors, sound mixers…the point is, Willis himself was fine.

"Hey Sam, you'll never guess who's on the phone..."

“Hey Sam, you’ll never guess who’s on the phone…”

At its best, the series is exceptionally smart and inventive; if you need proof, consider the fact that the FBI called Die Hard with a Vengeance screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh to question him regarding his plotting of the US Federal Reserve heist portrayed in the film. I stumbled across that little tidbit in an article by Kelly Konda over at We Minored in Film. Apparently, the Feds were concerned because they realized Hensleigh’s idea might actually work, which prompted them to rethink security at the Reserve. Check out the original article for more details.

In the meantime, if you happen to talk to Hensleigh, tell him to read Variety‘s 1994 mainly negative review of the film–RottenTomatoes attributes it to Brian Lowry, but the byline on the original article just reads ‘Variety Staff’–which specifically criticizes its “overly involved heist that takes far too long to set up.” I’m pretty sure he’ll laugh…with a vengeance.

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'The Avengers' writer-director Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: The Assembled ‘Avengers’ Knowledge (Part 2)

Tomorrow–or even later today, for those of you who have an advanced screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron playing in your city–a lot of you will be assembling in theaters for what’s sure to be an entertaining two-and-a-half hours. The most dedicated among you may already be about 19 hours in to Cineplex’s Marvel Movie Marathon (according to the schedule from the what sounds like the same marathon in the States, you’re probably about to start Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Whether you’re looking to complete your Marvel overdose or just curious how writer-director Joss Whedon deals with the size and scope of a project like The Avengers, we’ve got what you’re looking for.

Last time, most of what we heard from Whedon focused on constructing the world and the story in the first Avengers film. This time, we’ll hear what he has to say about the characters and their relationships–including Loki’s motivation, which sounds a lot like what I’ve heard about Ultron’s motivation in Age of Ultron–as well as the film genre that influenced his approach to the Battle of New York.

     Who is this “Hawkeye” You Speak of?

Hawkeye gets a bull's-eye.

Hawkeye gets a bull’s-eye.

The Avengers had a huge cast, including some new faces and others we’d only glimpsed before. Let’s start with the relatively minor characters, which really just means the ones that haven’t had their own movie…yet.

On the bottom rung of the ladder, there’s Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Poor Hawkeye. We caught a quick, uncredited glimpse of him in Thor, but we really meet him for the first time in The Avengers…and he spends the first half of the movie under Loki’s mind control. Definitely not ideal circumstances for a character, and Whedon knows it.

“One of the toughest and latest decisions made in the movie was, ‘What happens to Hawkeye?’ I had a beautiful backstory for him, he was part of the team from the get-go, and in the 190-page draft that I was writing I still didn’t have anything for him to do,” Whedon says (00:04:00). Putting Hawkeye under Loki’s control “helped to get rid of some of the excess characters, and [to] give him something to play,” but you won’t hear Whedon saying it was a perfect solution. “[It was] frustrating for him to be possessed right when his character was about to manifest, and frustrating for me to have to create an emotional through-line for two characters–[Hawkeye] and Black Widow–that you only hear about until the end of the movie since they don’t ever get a chance to speak until later. But…it did serve its purpose” (00:04:00).

     Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. “Black Widow,” a.k.a. “Buffy”

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.

We got to know Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow through her significant role in Iron Man 2. As the only members of the Avenger’s frontline team who aren’t technologically enhanced, genetically modified, or, well, Norse gods, it makes sense for her to share a bond with Hawkeye. Being the only woman on the team puts the pressure on her to make sure she can hold her own, which Whedon–who made a name for himself creating strong female characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer–established in her first scene.

Whedon’s impetus for creating Buffy was to subvert the horror-movie cliché of the blonde girl who gets killed in a dark alley. Here he subverts the action-movie cliché of the damsel in distress when he introduces Black Widow tied to a chair in a warehouse, being questioned by military men, only to break free and kick ass the moment it suits her. As Whedon says, “It is kind of my career in a microcosm, because ultimately there’s a helpless female who turns out to be stronger than everybody around her” (00:13:15).

     Nick Fury: Keeper of Secrets and Trading Cards

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had made a few appearances other Marvel movies leading up to The Avengers, particularly in post-credits scenes, but this is the first time we see him actively leading the team. His second-in-command, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), makes her first appearance here, and her character arc focuses on her changing attitude towards Fury’s manipulative tactics–tactics which are best exemplified through Fury’s use of a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent’s Captain America trading cards to motivate the team following that agent’s death.

It’s one of the film’s best scenes, but Whedon worried he’d be told to cut it.

“[That scene] verges on unlikeable for Fury, but for me it’s so important to who he is, and to why Maria Hill goes from not understanding, to being his absolute right arm…,” he explains. “And that, for me, is crucial; she doesn’t appreciate his methods, she doesn’t appreciate his manipulation, and then she sees how it works, and she knows what for, and that’s it. From then on in, she’s in” (01:37:50).

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

“That Guy from Alien

Before we get to The Big Four–Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor–a quick honourable mention has to go to Harry Dean Stanton. Most people in their thirties and younger probably only know him as ‘the guy from Alien,’ but he’s something of a low-key legend in Hollywood, having played nearly 200 roles according to IMDB.com. Though he only makes a cameo here, he leaves a big impression on Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Harry Dean Stanton shares his wisdom with Bruce Banner.

Harry Dean Stanton’s security guard shares his wisdom with Bruce Banner.

“I was coming to the point where I realized I needed a scene where somebody accepts Banner as the Hulk besides Tony–having seen the Hulk, just accepts him–and for [Banner] to make the turn towards, ‘I can help the team,’” says Whedon. “And I got the idea of Harry Dean in my head, and wrote a scene for him that was about twelve pages long, and it was just, ‘Hey look! Bruce Banner fell into a Coen brothers movie’” (01:31:45). The full scene is available as an extended scene on the Blu-ray, but in my opinion, Whedon was definitely smart to cut it down.

Even the Backstory Has Backstory

As if handling a cast this size wasn’t enough of a challenge, Whedon also had to deal with the fact that many of these characters already had histories and relationships that had been established in previous films, which necessarily influenced Whedon’s approach to them. It sounds like this baggage was filled with both pros and cons.

“A lot of people asked, ‘How do you deal with all the restrictions based on what came before in the movies before?’ The fact of the matter is, sometimes it can be very, very difficult, and sometimes it made my life lots easier,” Whedon says. “Not that you would have had to have seen those movies, but it doesn’t hurt if you have, and the ease that these three [Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Clark Gregg] have…with each other based on that history is palpable, and the fun that they have is palpable” (00:27:00).

Tony gives Bruce a poke in the lab. Does S.H.I.E.L.D. have a harassment policy?

Tony gives Bruce a poke in the lab. Does S.H.I.E.L.D. have a harassment policy?

Tony Stark & Bruce Banner

Since some members of the cast had been inhabiting their characters off-and-on for a few years, the actors had more to bring to the table. “One of the first things Robert [Downey, Jr.] said when we were meeting about the movie was, ‘There’s no way Tony Stark gets in a room with Bruce Banner and doesn’t poke him…. He wants to see how that guy works,'” recounts Whedon (00:56:45).

Whedon seems very open to accepting input from his actors, and in this case he ran with it. “[That moment] ultimately informs their entire arc, which is one of my favourite things in the movie: the idea that Tony Stark is not intimidated by the concept of the Hulk, and in fact thinks that Bruce needs to embrace his inner Hulk, as it were, sounds like pure classic Tony irresponsibility,” he says. “In fact it is what saves us all, and ultimately what saves Tony, because he…sets [Bruce] up and lets him get to that place where he can decide to be the Hulk” (00:56:45).

"What're you talking about? I didn't poke him."

“What’re you talking about? I didn’t poke him.”

In a sense, the film’s climax revolves around Tony’s personal revelation, partly influenced by Steve Rogers. “The idea…[of Tony’s] sacrifice play was really central…,” Whedon says. “We didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, callow Tony learns to care,’ but at the same time, we did want the conflict between him and Steve to be resolved in his acceptance of Steve’s point of view [on the team], and of him, as we would say, throwing himself on the wires so the other guy can crawl across, and this is his moment to do that” (02:06:05).

Captain America–the good kind of supersoldier

As for Captain America, his arc in the movie focuses on coming to terms with life in the 21st century, after his deep freeze at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. For him, the 1940s and World War II are very fresh in his mind, but for audiences, not so much. This disconnect, as well as some story ideas that were toned down from the early drafts, helps explain why Cap’s exchange with Loki in Germany seemed to go a little Führer…I mean, “further”…than necessary.

“This was originally in because the movie had a lot more to do with Cap’s re-emergence in the world, and for him to go to Germany was particularly personal,” Whedon explains. “Ultimately, because that stuff got dialed back…, this stood out to some people as, ‘Well, seeing German people kneel, we’ve seen that, and saying that they’re like sheep, that’s terrible.’”

Whedon also had to find a way to work around a problem he’d created for himself. “When I got to [Cap’s] line, ‘The last time I saw somebody in Germany standing above everybody else,’ and Cap is actually standing above everybody else, I realized that I had created a problem for myself, and that’s why you’ll see people in the background there standing up while he’s saying it, so that he can not be an enormous hypocrite,” he says. “Because, of course, what he’s saying to Loki is, ‘No, you’re not better than other people. You’re not larger than life.’ But he’s a supersoldier. He’s a superhero. This is a movie about people who are larger than life, and for him to be the man of the people, you have to walk that line, too” (00:41:00).

"Tony, we saw you poke him."

“Tony, we saw you poke him.”

True to his character, Loki proved to be a little tricky for Whedon as well. “In devising [Loki’s] character, one of the things that I really struggled with was how sympathetic he had been in Thor, and what a tragic figure he had been,” he explains (00:06:00).

While Whedon was trying to work this out, he spoke to longtime collaborator Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cabin in the Woods), who is now showrunner for Marvel’s new (and amazing!) Netflix series Daredevil. “[Drew] reminded me that [Loki] did throw himself into an abyss, and that he has come out the other side of it,” Whedon says. “That enabled me to let [the character] play the way Loki is traditionally played, which is for fun–for him to have fun with what he’s doing, and for the sadness…that [Thor director Kenneth] Branagh had brought to the character to lay underneath it” (00:06:00).

“All of [Loki’s] spiel about freedom, which he brings up often, and how crippling it is for people, I enjoyed enormously writing…because I really believe that he believes it. It makes perfect sense, on some level, to say that humanity is not doing a very good job of taking care of themselves, and what they’d really like is for daddy to make it better,” Whedon says, explaining Loki’s motivation in the film. “And for him to espouse that so articulately and not understand that only a person who is deeply damaged would ever want to be the person who takes care of everybody, is what I think makes his character so interesting.” (00:06:00)

(Warning: If you want to avoid a very slight Avengers: Age of Ultron spoiler–it just mentions why Ultron is the bad guy–skip the next paragraph.)

It seems like Whedon has a thing for villains with megalomaniacal tendencies, because this sounds very similar to what I’ve heard about Ultron’s motivations in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Matt Zoller Seitz, in his review of the film for RogerEbert.com, writes that “Ultron is supposed to serve as a Skynet-like artificial intelligence network that detects apocalyptic threats and swiftly destroys them…. Like many a sci-fi robot or Frankenstein’s monster, the creature has a different idea of what constitutes a threat (spoiler: it’s us).” Now, I suppose a series like The Avengers basically requires a worldwide threat, and I know that these films are about the journey as much as the destination, and I guess there is a difference between enslaving the human race and eradicating it, but at first glance I’d say these villains have pretty similar motivations. But, we’ll see how it plays out.

"He did it again! Stop poking me!"

“He did it again! Stop poking me!”

In any case, Whedon always manages to pack in a lot of excitement without losing his head, or making audiences shake theirs. Keeping a level head is important in a film like this, where the sheer scope of it could be enough to lose sight of the details, and the final battle of The Avengers is a case in point. Featuring six heroes, one villain, and an army fighting across a large chunk of Manhattan, it’s truly amazing that it’s so easy to follow the action. It’s a lesson in how vital careful planning and strong editing are to a massive action sequence. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch Taken 2 (where it’s often impossible to tell who’s throwing which punch in a fight between just two people) or the first Transformers (where the machines are so big they overwhelm the screen, often making it difficult to tell where one ends and another begins, or where they are in relation to each other). Fortunately for us, Whedon had a very clear vision of what he needed to do.

“As I had said from the very beginning, literally the first meeting I ever took, if I was gonna do this, I wanted to make a war movie, and not a superhero movie,” he says. “And in a war movie, you need to know what [position] they’re holding, and where the enemy is coming from, and those physical details, and it’s not enough to make it pretty” (01:44:00).

"But...I didn't...poke you."

“But…I didn’t…poke you.”

At first it might seem like an odd–or inspired–approach to the battle, but Whedon is quick to point out that it’s not an original idea, and he’s learned from watching the best. “Not that other people don’t do the same thing. There’s a lot of directors that I’ve watched and learned from, obviously, [James] Cameron being seminal with things like the first Terminator and The Abyss,” he says. “But it’s very easy to let the chaos reign, and I’m very specific about keeping us in an exact space, and exact spatial relations” (01:44:00).

He was equally careful to plan out the action itself, and establish a clear progression to the battle. “Right from the start…I wrote up the entire battle in a five-act structure that would involve them fighting separately, coming together, fighting together, getting their heads handed to them, and eventually rising from the ashes,” he explains. “That structure, again, based more on war films than anything from the superhero genre because I just had too many damn heroes…. I needed to make it so that you knew every time you weren’t watching someone, that they were in the thick of something else, something terrible, so that every time you came back to them, things were that much worse” (01:46:30).

But for all that, there were still some occasions where Whedon had to fall back on old tricks he would have preferred to avoid. One in particular that seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth is the way all the invaders fall dead after Iron Man redirects the nuclear missile at the alien mothership.

“I’m not proud of that either, okay? It was necessary to make sure we understood that they didn’t have to clean up for the next seventeen hours by still fighting, so that they could actually have their moment of triumph, but it’s a device that I am not fond of” (02:06:05).

Well, at least he’s honest about it.

Now, who’s up for shawarma?

That's good shawarma.

That’s good shawarma.

The Avengers | Written & Directed by Joss Whedon | Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, and Samuel L. Jackson | Commentary by Joss Whedon

What do you think? What did you think of the way Whedon juggled all the characters and the action? How else could he have wrapped up the battle? Anyone have an early reaction to Avengers: Age of Ultron? Leave some comments below and let us know!

Ang Lee's Hulk

Hulk Humour: Hulk Laugh!

Maybe it’s just because I’m overtired, but this “honest trailer” for Ang Lee’s Hulk movie totally cracked me up! Thanks to The Space Channel (space.ca) for posting it.

'The Avengers', Whedon's second film.

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: The Assembled ‘Avengers’ Knowledge

Joss Whedon’s film career has followed a pretty unique trajectory. The first film he wrote and directed, Serenity, received strong acclaim from critics and fans, but barely broke even at the box office. Seven years later, his second film as writer-director, The Avengers, quickly became the third-highest grossing film of all time, behind Avatar and Titanic. That’s quite a growth spurt.

'Serenity', Whedon's first film.

‘Serenity’, Whedon’s first film.

With The Avengers: Age of Ultron coming out this weekend, I decided to refresh my memory of the first film, and see what Whedon had to say about it while I was at it. As always with Whedon’s solo commentaries, I’m glad I did.

     Whedon and Ensemble Casts

For all their differences, Serenity and The Avengers share one core element that proved particularly challenging for Whedon. “My first film, Serenity, involved about nine main characters who all already knew each other, or about each other, and I swore after that movie I would never do anything like that again,” he says. “And about a week into production on [The Avengers] I just slapped my forehead and made a Homer Simpson noise” (00:04:00).

But the stakes in The Avengers are much higher, within both its fictional world and the business world. The Avengers is a massive film, not only in its cast and scope, but in its place in Marvel’s fictional and financial universe. Failure would be disastrous. Whedon is quick to acknowledge that he was an odd choice to helm such a project–literally; it’s the first point he discusses.

'The Avengers', Whedon's second film.

‘The Avengers’, Whedon’s second film.

“[It] has a lot to do with my history, not just of reading comic books and being a huge geek, but of knowing Kevin Feige, and of the two of us talking about making a film for years when he was working at, but not running, Marvel,” Whedon explains. “When Marvel became its own thing, and Kevin became the man who reinvented the superhero movie with Iron Man, he came to me with this mostly in an advisory capacity, [and] said…, ‘What would you do if this were your baby?’” (00:00:20).

'Avengers: Age of Ultron', Whedon's third film.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’, Whedon’s third film. Notice these posters getting more crowded?

He had some pretty clear ideas even back when The Avengers had just started to assemble. “I did know, mostly, that I wanted to make a movie where being a superhero wasn’t a free pass,” he says. “Where things were tough enough that you would be as strong as you could possibly be, and still not be enough to deal with what was going on. Because ultimately, if the film didn’t work on a human level, it was never gonna work at all” (00:02:10).

     Putting the ‘Human’ in ‘Superhuman’

Everybody involved with the film, and even fans of the comics who had been waiting years for it to come to the big screen, knew that there would be no shortage of spectacle. In fact, some of the film’s action sequences were planned even before the story had been fleshed out. For example, detailed storyboards of the fight between Iron Man and Thor were created “right up front, because ultimately we knew we wanted them to fight on a mountaintop. Having Iron Man and Thor conflict was one of the first things Marvel wanted…,” Whedon explains (00:48:15). It sounds like these storyboards were made even before Whedon came aboard the project, and he was very impressed by the artists’ work. Since the visuals for this sequence had already been taken care of, Whedon felt his “job here wasn’t so much to create [the fight]; [his] job was to justify it” (00:48:15) and make it work on a human level.

Iron Man and Thor throw down.

Iron Man and Thor throw down.

Although the visual aspect of the fight had been worked out, the motivation for it was still undecided. “There was some talk about, ‘Well, he could be under a spell, or he could think he’s a bad guy,’ and to me that was deadly, that was danger,” Whedon says. “If you get these guys pummeling each other out of a misapprehension, then you’re just waiting for them to start talking. You’re just checking a box: Iron Man fights Thor, done…. You don’t want that” (00:48:15).

(Oh Joss Whedon, how I wish you’d been there to have that talk with George Lucas before the Star Wars prequels came out. Maybe now that Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars, and it’s been announced that the Russo brothers will be directing the next two Avengers movies, perhaps you’ll take your sage story wisdom to a galaxy far, far away?)

Whedon made sure that when these guys threw down, they did it for a good reason. “What you want are two people with conflicting agendas…. So what I ultimately came up with has been done in many cop movies–‘you can’t bust the bad guy because he’s part of a bigger investigation’ kind of thing,” he explains. Whedon knows it’s not the most original idea, but it worked in the context of the film because it shows that even though Iron Man and Thor are committed to justice, that doesn’t mean they agree on what that means, and “it gave each of them a legitimate excuse to believe they should have Loki, the other guy should stand down, and for their tempers to get the better of them, so that what you have is not just a fight–you have a conflict” (00:48:15).

     F*cking the Dog

Favouring conflicts over fights was also at the core of Whedon’s take on the Hulk, especially during his first transformation. Here’s a character who’s been shown to be basically indestructible through two movies (although I guess Ang Lee’s mutant poodles did give him a run for his money), neither of which were particularly successful despite the fact that they each had some things going for them.

Poodle haircuts even make mutant poodles look dumb.

Poodle haircuts even make mutant poodles look dumb.

Whedon has some ideas about where they went wrong. As he explains, “I think a problem with the Hulk movies was that you were waiting for the guy, and then a bunch of bullies would show up, and you’d be, ‘Yay, a bunch of bullies are there! And so it’s time for him to show them that he’s cool’” (01:16:35). Basically, no person or thing presents enough of a threat to the Hulk for the audience to believe he’s actually in peril.

Ang Lee's Hulk. "I B.M. ICBMs"

Ang Lee’s Hulk. “I B.M. ICBMs”

So Whedon approached this problem from a different angle, one which meshed with the realization that Bruce Banner himself has been struggling with: of all the members of the Avengers, the Hulk is an unknown variable, as much an asset as a liability. As Whedon says, “The Hulk story really isn’t just a hero story. It is a werewolf story. It’s a monster movie” (01:16:35).

To convey this idea visually and dramatically, Whedon chose to have the Hulk’s first appearance present him as a threat rather than a saviour. “This was very important to me, structurally…. The whole idea of the first Hulk-out is that it’s around somebody that we love…whom the Hulk does not love, and whom he might actually kill…,” Whedon says. “So it was important to me that…it be around one of our main characters who would be in the most possible danger–the physically weakest of the characters–so that we would not necessarily wish that he would be the Hulk, although with every fibre of our being we’ve been waiting to see this guy” (01:16:35).

"Hulk, smash! But don't smash her!"

“Hulk, smash! But don’t smash her!”

In other words, he wanted people to think, “Hulk, smash…but not her! Not her!”

When Whedon uses the term “justify,” it seems like a key aspect involves establishing a link to the real world. When it comes to characters’ particular actions, this means creating genuine motivations through real human emotions. On a grander scale, in terms of the existence of superheroes and their technology, it means grounding them in the real world. Our world. And this is something that Marvel movies have done particularly well in recent years.

     Keeping It Real

“The Marvel universe in movies [is] very similar to the Marvel universe in comics…. It’s based in reality in a way that other superhero…comics [at the time] and, before Iron Man, movies, just weren’t,” Whedon says. “They always had a sort of an arch air to them, and I don’t say that as a bad thing–it’s a choice–but their choice to base Tony Stark and Iron Man in a kind of grounded reality informs everything that I had to do with The Avengers…because you want people to go, ‘This is happening. This is in our world.’ While at the same time, they’re going, ‘Wow, this is a comic book!’” (00:17:45).

The first Iron Man suit.

The first Iron Man suit.

Thinking back to Iron Man, a good example of this is Tony Stark’s creation of his first suit. Circumstances forced him to build his first suit as a means of escape, and with minimal resources at his disposal it came out looking very clunky. It worked, but it also broke down quite quickly and spectacularly. Then we saw the different versions of the suit as Tony refined the design and production, and we still see little (and not so little) tweaks to the design in each movie. This slow progression grounded the film in reality, and helped audiences buy-in to the idea that these events weren’t just taking place in a world–they were happening in our world.

When the time came to introduce S.H.I.E.L.D.’s helicarrier in The Avengers, Whedon was careful to follow a similar approach, although one golden opportunity almost slipped by him. “In early versions of the script, we didn’t have the take-off [of the helicarrier] and once we decided to put it in,” he says. “It was one of those things where we could not believe we would ever have been stupid enough not to have it, because the only buy-in to this world is through ours, and the only buy-in to the idea that that thing should fly is to see it for what it should be–an aircraft carrier–and then put it in the air” (00:33:20).

The Helicarrier.

The Helicarrier.

Is it an aircraft carrier? No, it's a helicarrier!

Is it an aircraft carrier? No, it’s a helicarrier!

Think of it like this. In the first-ever Star Wars film, the first shot has ten words against a black background–“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” If Lucas has decided to skip the text scrolling through space and cut straight to the iconic shot of the underbelly of the massive Star Destroyer stretching out farther and farther over the camera as it passed, you’d still buy it, and you’d still be impressed, because you already know that the movie doesn’t take place in the here and now. But if the helicarrier’s first appearance had been handled that way as it cruised over New York City, or even some remote stretch of ocean, audiences’ first thought would probably be, “Why haven’t I seen that before? Seems like that’d make the news somewhere. Doesn’t it interfere with airline traffic?” By showing it transform from aircraft carrier to helicarrier, Whedon answers a lot of those questions without them being asked.

     The Money Hero Shot

Whedon even applies this idea of justification to his filmmaking style on the level of individual shots, which is something I really admire. One example is the film’s “hero shot,” the one that everyone, probably including Whedon, knew was coming in one form or another before the story had been written–the shot that shows the heroes fighting together as a team. It was probably included in every trailer and every commercial. In some films, you see them charging into battle in slow-motion, probably in a phalanx formation. In others, it’s a low-angle shot looking up at the heroes as the camera dollies across them, probably with the sun at their back. In The Avengers, the camera dollied around the team as they stood in a circle, literally and figuratively watching each others’ back while they’re surrounded by enemies.

Avengers Hero Shot

Avengers Hero Shot

Rather than just throwing it in there for the sake of checking it off the list, Whedon created a justification for it. “We knew we were going to do the dolly shot [around the whole Avengers group],” he says. “But on the day I said, ‘Okay, [the Hulk has] just punched the leviathan, so these [bad] guys are going crazy. They’re doing a war whoop that’s also a yell of pain–like it’s a queen bee thing–and that justifies the looking around and the dollying around, so that it’s not meaningless” (01:52:10).

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a level of professionalism and attention to detail that you don’t always see in Hollywood blockbusters. It’s also one of many reasons I’m excited to see Avengers: Age of Ultron ASAP.

But this is not all that Joss Whedon has to say about The Avengers! It’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and he talks pretty much non-stop. And it’s genuinely insightful stuff! Next time we’ll get into his comments on the individual characters, as well as the relationships between characters, his approach to the massive final battle, as well as something about Loki’s motivation that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve heard about Ultron’s motivation in the sequel. Surprised? I was.

To be continued!

The Avengers | Written & Directed by Joss Whedon | Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, and Samuel L. Jackson | Commentary by Joss Whedon

What do you think? Did Whedon do a good job with The Avengers? Has Marvel done a convincing job of introducing superheroes to our reality? How does Whedon’s version of the Hulk compare to the Ang Lee’s and Louis Leterrier’s? Leave some comments below and let us know!

R.I.P. Joyce Summers

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: ‘The Body’ Laid Bare (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S5E16) (Part 2)

(major spoiler alert!)

In part one of our write-up of the commentary on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season five episode ‘The Body,’ writer-director Joss Whedon explained that with this episode he was trying to convey the “extreme physicality” of death, a point that we’ll return to later. Considering that so many viewers felt the loss of Buffy’s mom, Joyce, and the gang’s resulting shock and grief, as a physical blow, it seems clear that Whedon succeeded.

‘The Body’ was an emotional episode of Buffy not just for the characters and fans, but for writer-director Joss Whedon and the other talent behind the camera. “Everybody that I spoke to when I was writing this has lost someone, has a story about it, has an attitude towards it, and it all fed into this,” he explains. “But a lot of this came from my own experiences of losing my mother, and of losing other people, and not just of my own grief but of watching everybody else’s” (00:24:10).

Angry Xander

Angry Xander

Perhaps it is because he has watched other people experience loss that Whedon knows everyone has a different reaction to death, and allows his characters to react in their own way. This leads to some unique contrasts and interactions, particularly when the characters come together for the first time after learning of Joyce’s death.

Tara deals the best, because she’s been through it before, which is a revelation we get to later. Xander gets angry, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and we see Tara reacting to his anger, and his desire to make it right…. Willow, of course wearing her heart on her sleeve and completely at sea about the clothing thing becoming just something to latch on to. And then his anger allowing her to be cogent enough to become the grown up, to comfort him. And of course Anya…. Her part in this is something that most people remember best of all, because she just seems to be Anya, asking just horribly inappropriate questions every five seconds. (00:24:10)

Willow gets tough

Willow gets tough

Although their reactions may not be unique–we’ve all seen portrayals of men who react to loss by getting angry, as Xander does–this is only natural. After all, though the reactions to death may manifest themselves in a variety of actions, there are only so many emotional responses at their core. Where Whedon leaves his mark is the inclusion of two perspectives that aren’t often seen.

Buffy and Tara share a moment.

Buffy and Tara share a moment.

As a character who has experienced the loss of her own mother, Tara has a genuine understanding of what Buffy is going through and is able to offer something more than the usual platitudes. The fact that neither her friends nor the viewers know this about her provides a turning point to the story, as well as to the development of her character, and her relationship with Buffy.

Even more unique than this is Anya’s perspective–a formerly immortal demon whose job was to inflict pain and suffering and death, and who is still learning about, and coming to terms with, her newfound humanity and mortality. Despite having over 1100 years of life experience, this is her first encounter with the permanent sense of loss that is entwined with this mortal coil, and her use of her adult language to express her childlike confusion and pain and sorrow at Joyce’s death is poignant and heartbreaking and couldn’t be said any better without trading raw impact for greater eloquence.

Aside from season seven’s ‘Conversations with Dead People,’ the story arc of this episode is arguably the most unique of the series. There is no baddie to battle, no disaster to avert, just a loss to discover and accept. In a series that has dealt with returning from death in the form of vampires, zombies, and resurrections, as well as contact with ghosts, demons, and other beings that exist beyond or outside of death, this is perhaps the only case of death, plain and simple and unavoidable, and from natural causes, no less. The only things here for the characters to confront are loss and grief, and they can’t be fought or defeated, only accepted.

Who knew Anya had it in her?

Who knew Anya had it in her?

But even in this, Whedon provides a clear story arc. Rather than pausing the story while characters express their grief, as too many shlock directors might choose, Whedon makes their reactions and interactions the focus of the story. Anya’s reaction is a perfect example of this. As Whedon explains,

Emma’s performance here [as Anya] is lovely, when she goes into her speech coming up. What people [respond] to besides the performance is the fact of it as a kind of a plot twist. That is to say, nobody expected that much sensitivity from Anya, so when she breaks down and expresses really the heart of the experience–the very very basic, ‘I don’t understand’–it moved people even more than I had predicted, and partially because it works as a plot twist, because you think ‘Oh, she’s just insensitive,’ and then this happens. (00:24:10)

Not only does this scene reveal something about Anya’s character that we haven’t seen before, but it gives her relationship with Willow a nudge in a more positive direction.

In addition to creating a very clear arc for a story that could have become a shapeless blob of schmaltz in the hands of lesser talent, Whedon intentionally created a sense of physical space within the episode’s environment. Although Whedon has often mentioned his love for, and reasoning behind, long shots as a director, in Buffy he is often restricted to one room–Giles’ library, Buffy’s living room or kitchen, the hideout of the Big Bad du jour. ‘The Body’ includes one of the few instances (that I can recall, anyway) in which two locations are connected by one long shot. We see the coroner alone with Joyce’s body in what appears to be an autopsy room, then follow him out the door, along a hallway, and into the waiting room where Buffy and her friends are sitting. Whedon explains that two factors motivated this decision. “I have to confess…that I am a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and that I had been watching Magnolia obsessively before I shot this scene, so these endless tracking shots probably owe something to that,” he says. “But what I was really trying to get at here was again the reality of the space. I wanted to see Joyce very clearly, and then I wanted to walk all the way over to where Buffy was, where her loved ones were, so that you understood she was down the hall, she was really there, she was in a shot with them. It was not a cut. We weren’t on a different set” (00:30:45).

Vampire rising.

Vampire rising.

The camera later follows Buffy in her search for Dawn, who has gone looking for her mother’s body, and she finds Dawn just in time to save her from a freshly risen vampire. Whedon says that some people questioned his decision to incorporate an attack in that scene, but Whedon wasn’t doing it just for thrills. “I was very specific about it,” he says. “I wanted a vampire, first of all, who looked more like a corpse than anything else, and here’s young Dawn confronted by not only a vampire, but a naked man. It’s an intrusion, it’s offensive, and completely physical…” (00:40:10).

This brings us full circle to the theme of the physicality of death that Whedon explained in part one of this article, which is reinforced by the episode’s final shot. Buffy has defeated the vampire, and she and Dawn are alone together with their mother’s body for the first time. Dawn rises from the floor and sees that the sheet that covered her mother’s body has been pulled away during the struggle. With a timid hand, she slowly reaches out to touch her mother’s cold skin, getting closer, closer, and just as she’s about to make contact, Whedon cuts to black, then rolls the credits.

The fact of death being physically real, and physically unreal, is expressed…in the last shot, after Dawn says [“Where’d she go?”]–words that cannot be answered by anybody–and reaches out to touch her mother, in a show that’s been all about physicality, this girl–who needs to know, to understand–never touches her, and that was done very specifically…. It meant we want to touch it, but there’s nothing there, and to [cut] just before she touches her [mother’s body] was to express…what I’ve been talking about the whole way: there is no resolve, there’s no resolution, there’s no ending, there’s no lesson, there’s just death. (00:43:05)

BTVS, S5E15, 'The Body' - penultimate shot

BTVS, S5E15, ‘The Body’ – penultimate shot

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5, Episode 16, ‘The Body’ | Written & Directed by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head

What do you think? Did you like how this episode differed from the usual Buffy format, or were you disappointed by it? Throughout her whole time on the show, does Anya have any other moments that rival her speech here? Did you catch yourself letting out a sigh or making some other kind of noise when Whedon cut to black just before Dawn touched the body, like I did? Leave some comments below and let us know!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens logo

New Trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Oh my god oh my god oh my god, the new teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has arrived, and it has 1 minute and 59 seconds worth of reasons to be totally excited! CHECK IT OUT!

Chuckle with Chucky

Everybody’s favourite serial killing doll, Chucky, has an instantly recognizable laugh, which is fitting since each Child’s Play movie featured an increasingly twisted sense of humour. It seems like the folks at PerezHilton share the same twisted streak, and have let Chucky loose in the real world. Check out their video of people’s reactions to a pretty hilarious prank.